Artwork / Apple Pie / Nowa Flaga (Polish-American, Bonnie)

a Polish-American woman as an American flag
Gwenn Seemel
Nowa Flaga (Polish-American, Bonnie)
acrylic on canvas patchwork flag
48 x 34 inches


I don’t often paint on canvas patchwork as I did for Nowa Flaga, but it happens, like with my father’s portrait in this diptych and in this self-portrait. I also did an entire series of portraits on patchwork.

Below is the subject’s answer to this question: what does it mean to be an American?

Today, January 5, 2008, I am full of hope for America. The fact that Obama won the Iowa primary in a very white state gives me hope that American racism is diminishing. But it is one of the few rays of hope that I have seen since 2000 when democracy was crushed by the Supreme Court and countless voting precincts around the country prevented minorities from voting. Every day since that fateful election in 2000 I have watched America slide down in my eyes and the world’s—a senseless war; the dismantling of agencies that keep our land, water, air and food supplies safe; a country that has a health insurance system rather than a health care system; the devaluation of science; and the destruction of the separation of church and state.

I consider myself a patriotic person but I have never been a flag waver, worn a flag pin, hung one up on my house during holidays or burnt one as a symbolic act. I use symbols in my artworks but I don't often use them in my life. I am disgusted at those who have a kind of public, faux patriotism—people flying flags on gas guzzling SUV’s or flag pins worn by the very people who have committed unpatriotic acts. The symbols don’t make one a good American, the acts you do and the life you lead do.

My father came here from Suwalki, Poland in 1929 when he was 20 years old, expecting the land of milk and honey, if not streets paved with gold. In this country he was able to build a business and lose it. He was a disappointed man who died at 55 of kidney disease, no doubt from the dry cleaning chemicals he used at work before the days of OSHA protection.

My mother was born in Montreal but missed being born in Russia (Belarus) by just a few years. She came to this country at 10 when her widowed mother married an American citizen who was also born in Russia.

I am a child of both “after the war” and the “60s.” My brother and I were constantly told how lucky we were not to have been born in Russia and Poland. We probably wouldnt have been born at all; I being born in 1945 and my brother in ’39. Suwalki had 11,000 Jews in 1939 and only 1 in 2000. Berezine, the town of my maternal side was totally wiped out in WWII. The 60s brought the fervor of wanting to make a better world; becoming an agent of change; and to stand up and be counted. It also brought the Vietnam War.

Some events in Americas past and present make me ashamed for her. But I have seen positive changes as well. We are not one people walking in lockstep. Which America? What Americans? Can we generalize about 300,000,000 people? Our voices sing in harmony and dissonance.

I am keenly aware of becoming who I am because of being born here. I am a product of public education that had art and music for every child in elementary school. I borrowed 10 books at a time from the Irvington Free Public Library even though I always had trouble carrying them all home. I went to a state teachers college with a scholarship, but even so the tuition for a semester was equal to what my parents paid for a month's rent. I have been able to choose what I do for a living, not practice a religion, and live where I want to live in a house that we own. Oh, and I do political art and have not been arrested!

- Bonnie